Friday, May 29, 2009

Pakistan Cricket's Decline, And The Way Back

I have been deliberating on whether or not to break this piece up in parts. Why? Well, it's 2700 words. That's nine double-spaced pages.

At the end of the day, I decided to have faith in you guys having nothing to do at work, and that you would find it sufficiently engaging to not drift off. Enjoy.

Malcolm Gladwell, the world’s most brilliant writer, and master of the no-shit-Sherlock thesis, recently had his third book published, called Outliers. In it, he debunks the notion that overwhelming success is merely the result of innate talent. To the contrary, Gladwell argues that the social and economic systems within which individuals are embedded in matter a great deal. Individuals, talented as they are, cannot succeed without being blessed with the right circumstances.

So Bill Gates wouldn’t have been a computer super-genius if he didn’t happen to be one of the few people to go to school at a place where he had an exclusive opportunity to sit and stare at a screen all day. The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles if they didn’t have the opportunity to hone their skills night in and night out in Hamburg. Jewish lawyers in New York needed the anti-Semitism of early-20th century America so that they would be forced to work in then-unpopular areas of law, areas which expanded considerably in the 1960s and 70s leaving the same Jewish lawyers in a highly advantaged position. Chinese students are better at math than Americans because their ancestors worked in rice paddy fields (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out).

The bottom-line for Gladwell is this: individual talent matters, but so does social structure. Or, as Karl Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

The story of Pakistani cricket from the summer of 2006 to the present has been remarkable in many ways. In those three years, it has enjoyed more drug-related charges (four) than test match victories (three). It has lost its two best players to retirement and the ICL respectively. Few teams have faced greater misfortune with respect to World Cups – it was knocked out of the last one by Ireland, a country that doesn’t play any meaningful cricket, and denied a chance to host the next one by the Taliban, who would rather that no country play any meaningful cricket. From dummy captains to dead coaches, from terrorist attacks to a fading bowling attack, from ball tampering allegations to ball-busting stupidity, Pakistan cricket has lurched from one crisis to another, uncaring to the followers it has taken on this death-ride. Every time Pakistani cricket fans reason to themselves that it surely cannot become any worse, reality bites, and asks them a cruel question: are you sure?

The usual explanations bandied about for these events are usually couched in the language of structures and systems. If Pakistan’s domestic cricket was better organized, we are told, it would throw up better talent. If Pakistan’s cricket board had a constitution and internal elections, it would be better managed. If Pakistan’s players were trained from a younger age, they wouldn’t be so clearly out of their depth when they hit the big leagues.

These explanations are all well and good, but there is something inherently problematic about them. Pakistan’s domestic cricket has always been this badly organized. Pakistan’s cricket board has never had a constitution or internal elections. And Pakistan’s players have only ever received real coaching once they made the national team. And yet Pakistan has, at various times in the last two decades, been arguably the best team in the world, despite these factors working against it.

Why does this matter? To borrow social scientific lexicon, we cannot explain variation with a constant. Pakistan cricket’s systemic chaos has been a near constant. Pakistan cricket’s success and failure on the field has varied considerably. In the last decade alone, it has seen two periods of top quality cricket (1999-2002; 2004-2006), one period of rebuilding a young team (2002-2004), and one unmitigated collapse into oblivion (2006-present). So if the purported cause (“quality of structure”) hasn’t changed, how can its putative effect (“quality of cricket”) have changed so dramatically?

No, structure fails to explain it. If we are to find the true reasons for Pakistan cricket’s decline and fall, we must look elsewhere.

Pakistan’s problem in the last three years has not been with the structure within which individuals operate, but the individuals themselves. More to the point, the problem has been that it has filled particular roles with personalities spectacularly unsuited for them. Three in particular have stood out: Nasim Ashraf, Shoaib Malik, and Shoaib Akhtar.

Nasim Ashraf, during his time in charge, was seemingly intent on challenging George W. Bush for the coveted most-bad-decisions-per-year award, the Buffoon d’Or. In a culture that values personal relationships above all else, he never got on with the players, and never tried to either. He jettisoned people when he shouldn’t have (Waqar Younis as bowling coach) and failed to do so when he should have (Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar after the first round of drug offenses). In his untiring efforts to sideline the ICL signees, he proved himself to be more loyal than the King; never bothering to note whether or not kowtowing to the BCCI on the question of banning the ICL players was in Pakistan’s interest or not. Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt would have exhorted him to, Ashraf spoke loudly but enjoyed little authority – both within and outside the country – because he simply did not win people’s respect. Everybody knew that he was in the position he was for precisely one reason: his close relationship with former president Pervez Musharraf. His time as head of the PCB was marked, above all else, by incompetence and mistrust. It showed.

Contrast that with his predecessor, Shaharyar Khan. Khan’s professional training was as a diplomat – for a period of forty years, he served Pakistan as an ambassador, a high commissioner, and a foreign secretary. This training, no doubt, allowed him to cultivate stronger relationships with stakeholders in Pakistani cricket to a much greater extent than Ashraf. He would know which buttons to push, when to push them, and when to tactically back off – all qualities that a diplomat naturally possesses. He had experience in the cricketing fraternity – he was appointed the team’s manager on the politically charged tour to India in 1999, and managed the side in the 2003 World Cup too. In short, he wasn’t out of his element around superstar cricketers (unlike Ashraf) and knew how to get along with people, because he had done it for a living (unlike Ashraf).

So Ashraf’s reign over Pakistan cricket is the first step toward understanding what has happened in the last three years. Though the PCB has always been a dysfunctional organization, it exceeded its own high standards of ineptitude during Ashraf’s time.

The second key individual we must look to is Shoaib Malik. Now, Shoaib Malik is a good man and a good cricketer. Until he became captain, he always showed himself to be a team player – doing whatever those senior to him asked him to, never being involved in any controversies on or off the field, batting in any and all positions, turning his arm over when a breakthrough was needed on flat wickets, and being Pakistan’s only world class fielder. It is not his fault he was asked to be captain – no, that particular honor belongs to Younis Khan. But it is his fault that he was such a bad one.

Pakistan has always been known for playing an attacking and aggressive brand of cricket. Under the Inzamam-Woolmer regime, they lost some of that style, though that regime’s detractors sometimes overstate the case. But Shoaib Malik took it to another level. It would take one boundary for sweepers to be put out, even against the Zimbabwes and Bangladeshes of the world. Two slips would be a rarity, three a pipe dream. There was little to no innovation in fielding positions. Bowling changes were predictable. Youngsters – Fawad Alam and Sohail Khan must be asking themselves if they accidentally insulted someone in Malik’s family – weren’t given chances to show what they worth, even when they were selected. Pakistan didn’t just become a bad team, they became something much worse. They became boring. A team that prided itself on magnetic and charismatic superstars wreaking havoc with opposition team’s carefully crafted plans suddenly became an Excel spreadsheet: staid and predictable. Shoaib Malik created more EPL fans in Pakistan than Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas combined.

So Shoaib Malik’s bad captaincy is the second clue we need to chart Pakistan cricket’s descent. Under him the team was neither good enough to challenge the big boys, nor bad enough to warrant a complete overhaul and an infusion of youth. He failed to inspire, played favorites – Kamran Akmal, anyone? – and was tactically lost. The result was mediocrity.

Last but by no means in this sordid story is Shoaib Akhtar. There was a period – perhaps two or three years ago – when Shoaib Akhtar was an incredibly polarizing individual. If you walked into a room of ten cricket fans, five would tell you that he was the only savior available to Pakistan cricket, and five would tell you that he was overweight, injury-prone and selfish, and deserved to be booted. There was no middle ground. This is no longer the case. Now, not only is there no middle ground, but there are no supporters left either. Suddenly, that room of ten cricket fans has nine loudly railing against Shoaib, and it’s only nine because the tenth popped off for a smoke, probably unable to handle thinking or talking about Shoaib Akhtar any longer. It is all become a bit much: the self-aggrandizing Ferrari references, the repeated pull-outs on second and third days of test matches, the laziness in the field, the incessant trouble with teammates, the drugs, the scandals, and the injuries – oh, the injuries. After contracting genital warts, Shoaib has seemingly completed his quest to suffer every ailment possible for an athlete; surely there is nothing left for him to accomplish.

It is important, however, to note that Shoaib Akhtar the individual was not the problem, per se. After all, this was the same man who ran through sides, good sides, for fun, who once silenced one hundred thousand Indians in Calcutta by getting Tendulkar first ball, who once possessed capabilities of destruction that no one else could even fathom. Why? Well, he was quicker than Ambrose, got more bounce than Waqar, was more accurate than Lee, and more menacing than Donald. What more do you want?

No, the problem wasn’t Shoaib himself, but the role he was asked to fulfill around the middle of this decade: the senior statesmen. Shoaib thrived as the breakthrough-iconoclast at the beginning of his career (1998-2000) and did fairly well as the up-and-comer stepping up to replace the Ws as the best bowler in the team (2000-03). What he was clearly unequipped to handle was the next logical step, that is, of a position of responsibility; his selfishness, immaturity and stubbornness simply precluded any success in that role. One only needs to imagine Mohammad Asif’s career under Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis’ tutelage to comprehend the difference. This is not to excuse Asif for his bouts of incredible inanity and stupidity, but it is to say that the type of players available as mentors matter greatly for one’s development.

At bottom, Pakistan relied on Shoaib Akhtar and he repeatedly let the country down – whether that is Shoaib’s fault or the fault of those who trusted him in the first place is open to debate. But what is not open to debate is the fact that Shoaib’s antics, his inability to take his fitness seriously, and his me-first-everyone-else-last attitude cast a long and dark shadow over Pakistan cricket. And similar to his namesake and captain, as well as the former chairman of the board, the issue wasn’t the individuals themselves, but that the individuals were asked to do something that they were clearly and openly incapable of doing.

It is a truism that individual talent alone doesn’t guarantee success. But I would submit: it can make a helluva difference. Even if the structure around individuals is decrepit and constraining, talent has a way of rising above such concerns, and making a difference. Imagine Shaharyar Khan in place of Nasim Ashraf as head honcho of the PCB over the last three years. Or Wasim Akram in place of Shoaib Akhtar as the team’s elder statesman. Or Younis Khan (or even Shahid Afridi) in place of Shoaib Malik as captain. Despite the unfavorable conditions that are a staple for Pakistani cricket, there is little doubt that we would not be where we are now. No chance.

That lesson – the lesson that, irrespective of systems and organization and circumstances, simple talent can overcome – is valuable, for it provides a silver lining for us to consider. Imagine, for instance, how difficult a course Pakistan would face if reforming its system would be the only way of getting back on track. Imagine if we followed Gladwell’s blueprint, and had to ensure that the circumstances and structures that facilitate success were put in place before we actually got any. How depressing would that be? How long would we have to wait? Structures cannot be reformed overnight – indeed, that’s what makes them structures: their quality of endurance.

No, what Pakistan needs to get back is simple: one or two diamonds. It’s not a lot to ask for. Realistically, we need one great middle order batsman to break through (Fawad, we’re waiting), one excellent quick bowler (Sohail Khan and Mohammad Aamer, it’s time to live up to the unrelenting PakPassion hype), and one decent opener to partner Salman Butt. You put those three guys around Younis, Misbah, Akmal, Umar Gul, Kaneria, Sohail Tanvir, and suddenly you’ve got a fairly serviceable team. Not worldbeaters, mind, but pretty good. And if Asif comes back, I mean, really comes back – the Karachi/Sri Lanka/South Africa Asif? Well, then.

Ten minutes. Count to six hundred, and you’re there. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

If there is one critical moment from which Pakistan’s tale of woe begun, it must surely be Younis Khan’s “dummy captain” moment. As a result of that madness, Pakistan neither had the captain (Younis, despite his impetuousness, was the best bet) nor the chairman (Shaharyar resigned after the fiasco) it needed. Moreover, it sucked the life out of the entire set-up, leaving the late Bob Woolmer aghast, and in no small way led to the unraveling of the most successful Pakistan team of the last decade. And finally, it led to a fracturing of the team, because all of a sudden, the medium-term captaincy was an open question, and each of Shoaib Malik, Yousuf, and Afridi was a candidate, and lobbied intensely for it. Claims and counter-claims for respect and allegiance were made, and the team simply splintered at the top.

Rumor has it that the reason Younis Khan had his “dummy captain” moment was that he was made to wait for ten minutes outside Shaharyar Khan’s office in the autumn of 2006. Ten minutes. In that time, this too-proud man decided that the wait was an insult he could not bear, and that he would not only walk away in a huff and not meet the chairman of the board, but that he would also walk away from the captaincy for the Champions Trophy. In that instant, Younis threw to waste Pakistan’s carefully laid plans. He had loyally served as Inzamam-ul-Haq’s deputy for almost two years, and had impressed all and sundry with his leadership and man-management skills. He had played the “young, energetic, full of life” ying to Inzamam’s “calm, steely, fatherly” yang faithfully and brilliantly. For once in Pakistan cricket’s tortured history, there was a succession plan; for once, the captaincy would be peacefully and normally transferred from a captain to a vice-captain. For once, there would be no revolts, no back-biting, no politicking, no cliques, no haphazard ascension to the throne.

For once, there was a system in place.


sTk said...

Well written Ahsan, really got me back up to speed on Pakistani cricket!

Anonymous said...

Great write up dude.. I disagree with 9/10 people against Akhtar stat.. there are still plenty of retards out there who think that everything that has happened to him is somebody else's fault

karachi khatmal said...

really good stuff ahsan

although being down on pakistan seems to be a bit in vogue these days. and i'm quite glad about it, since we always turn it around when things are at their worst.

Ali K. said...

Excellent write up. Its sad that over the last few years the team had accepted mediocrity. Brought back players such as Yasir Hameed , Imran Nazir , Imran Farhat rather than trying newer players ; giving them a chance to become world beaters rather than giving players who were never good enough 2nd or 3rd chances. The belief that on our day we can beat anyone has simply evaporated.

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snikometer said...

I agree that the Naseem/Malik partnership was about as successful as NBC and Jimmy Falon’s (ZING). I also agree that our bowlers’ lack of a mentor has really hurt. But I do believe that Shoaib Akhtar is descended from divinity. And I REALLY believe that we need to structure our cricket. So much so that I wrote ya’ll a mini-essay:

It's a matter of pure chance that we've had a semi-successful cricket team over the past twenty years. But our luck is beginning to fray at the seams. Our two brightest stars: Sohail Khan and Mohammad Talha, were epic failures. Not because they were bowling on grave yard pitches, but because their bowling mechanics were severely dysfunctional. It speaks volumes about our game that Sohail Tanvir is one of our best bowlers. Did no one, somewhere in the dark depths of domestic cricket say, "aahhh dude, your leg's all fucked up"? These players could well have been the uber-talented mega-stars we'd all hoped for, but instead they're just average. A proper cricket system would give us a consistent, talented, and fit crop of cricketers. Without one, we’re on a fast track to the West Indies.

Without structure, the likelihood of finding amazing talent, and the likelihood of nurturing that talent, is decreased. So far, we’ve relied on occurrences like Imran Khan happening to be around when Wasim or Inzamam was trying out for an U-19 or something, or Pakpassion hearing about Mohammad Irfran from a horrified villager. Talent has been found on blind chance. Also, the list of talented Pakistanis who could have been world class cricketers but for minor technical glitches (Mohammad Sami, Shabbir Ahmad, Danish Kaneria, Saleem Elahi, Imran Nazir, to name a few) is almost endless. If there was a functional cricket infrastructure, talented cricketers would not have to worry about being in the right place at the right time (whatever Gladwell may say), and if they WERE discovered, they could get the help they needed to become world class players.

We need a structure also because the game has changed. Cricket is an increasingly mechanical sport, with emphasis on technique and physical fitness. Gone are the days of smoking a cigarette at fine leg, or feasting on lamb biryani during tea on day 4. Back in those days, the level of competition Pakistani athletes provided was on par wth the rest of the world. Today, it’s a different ball game (have you seen Mitchell Johson? the man’s a fucking well oiled Terminator). To provide the training and fitness required to compete internationally to all your domestic players requires a well-run and centralized planning, funding and logistics system.

Last, without a system, the long dark talent-less days like the ones we've seen recently might get longer and darker. We hope and pray that our non-system will throw up a Wasim or a Saeed Anwar every few years. But rationally, it is more likely NOT to throw up an amazing cricketer every few years than it is. And because it’s a system of random chance, we might see periods of 10-15 years (for example) before world beating cricketer emerges. Now in that period, the team will probably be unsuccessful, interest in the game will dwindle, and it becomes even more unlikely that you’ll produce an amazing cricketer. And the mediocrity increases exponentially. With a competitive domestic structure in place, you can at least offer up a decent team (like England keeps doing) with sound basics and techniques, while you wait around for Wasim Akram to show up.

Imagine Pakistani talent amped up on a balanced diet, regular fitness, technical coaching, and competitive domestic cricket. We would crush teams. All the time. Not just jerk off to youtube highlights of Younis Khan every couple of months.

Again, for more mindless ramblings (and fun pictures) on cricket: do check out

Apologies, FiveRupees, for the double solicitation.

Faisal.K said...

excellent piece and analysis!! I agree 200% if it was not for that "dummy" moment the transition from the team of god to the team of today could have happened but whaddaya know a Pakistani does what is least expected of him.

AKS said...

excellent article.

Anonymous said...

Great read, thanks.

Generally I agree with the thesis; structure is badly required. I think Nasim Ashraf, however, did more good than harm, and actually began to put the pieces of a system together. To name a few things, he finalized and implemented the constitution, set up player pensions, systemized the domestic tournaments (they are back to being hastily organized jokes now), organized the central contracts into a more transparent and merit based point system, decentralized a lot of funds from the budget and diverted them to support local and regional level coaching and training academies, and in general put a lot of emphasis on merit and fitness to break the prevailing seniority mentality. This, along with his lack of diplomatic skills and his alliance to mush, made him a lot of enemies and probably was his undoing.

Ahsan said...

Thanks to the people who enjoyed the piece.


You really think so? I think he's worn out everyone's patience, but I'd love to see evidence to the contrary. Message boards, blogs, newspaper articles, anything.

Ali K:

Please don't bring up Imran Farhat. I fear my head will explode.


I actually agree with everything you say. Organization and structure WOULD help. But I don't think our failures in the last three years are due to no structure. I think they're due to less, or misplaced, talent.

I suppose your rejoinder would be: you only get consistent talent with a system and structure. But I disagree. England have had the second-best system in cricket for a decade, and the only mega talented guy that's broken through in that is Pietersen, and he wasn't even an England product. They've produced plenty of second-order "stars" like Strauss and Monty during that time, but nothing overwhelming.


Fair points.

bubs said...

Ahsan: I think you are significantly underestimating the importance of a good system. There are some players who are so ridiculously talented it doesn't matter what system you have in place. Pieterson would definitely fall in that category as would Pakistan's stars from the 80s and 90s.

Where having a strong system in place is when it comes to honing marginally talented players. Guys like Warne and Ponting didn't need that system but the likes of Hayden, Langer and Martyn (all of whom took a long time to establish themselves as Test players) certainly benefited from it. As an example, I think Asim Kamal has as much talent as Andrew Strauss (not a lot but with definite potential), but the absence of a strong system in Pakistan didn't allow Kamal to develop as a player.

Another advantage of a competitive domestic set-up is that it helps selectors identify which players will succeed at the international level. If you look at the domestic averages of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan before they were chosen for England, there is nothing to suggest they would amount to anything. But because of their performances in crunch games, selectors were correctly able to gauge that they had the temperament for international cricket.

Anonymous said...

Another point is that when a system is in such disarray, the little talent that does get through despite the system is usually uber-talented. Put it this way: To get selected for Pak you have to be pretty amazing to get by all the other sifarshi/political/race-based/ill-informed/misguided/bullshit picks.

Miandad, Inzi, Moyo, Wasim, and Waqar to name the most recent legends were not exactly connected individuals before cricket, and were products of natural talent rather than consistency and systemized/institutionalized programs. The positive is that these people tend to emerge with a far deeper self-reflective understanding of the game and as such bring a much more innovative approach to cricket. Pak cricketers have always been innvoators (Miandad was cheeky in temperament and popularised the reverse sweep, Wasim and Waqar ofcourse took rev swing to new levels after sarfraz and imran invented it). The con, however, is that along with the 4-5 highly talented amazing innovating uber-cricketers, there are 6-7 other usually fat morons sharing the field with them. They are the other product of a shitty system: shitty cricketers.

It's an interesting question. I think overall I would rather have the consistency of 11 highly trained and super-fit professionals rather than wait around and hope for the next legend to show up, but I think it may turn out to be a tad less fun...

Anonymous said...

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snikometer said...

You're right; but I would argue that that's because English simply aren't talented cricketers. Other than Botham, Flintoff, maybe Boycott, I can't think of a single hyper-talented Englishmen in the past 30 years. BUT they've managed to play competitive, at times exceptional, cricket during that time. It's because they have a steady system to rely on.

Q said...

Good write!

You covered almost all the aspects of what went down over the last 3 years.

I'd like to add though, that Pakistan cricket has thrived despite the lack of a system or infrastructure. That has never been there in Pakistan, yet we produced world class performers. So I don't think that is what is required.

What we need is a strong captain.

Imran Khan was one. He had HIS players. Wasim Akram and Inzamam also had THEIR say in which players played under them.

After the 07 WC Nasim Ashraf was given the task of making the board stronger than the players.

For that he needed HIS captain, which Younis Khan refused to become and Malik became initially, but then he too started to get frustrated.

Note that throughout Malik's tenure, he had no say in selection. He never got HIS players.

Younis Khan's demands before taking over were that he wants a say in the selection and he has been getting it.

A strong captain with a couple of match winners has always been behind the success of Pakistan cricket.

Despite that, the have always been in inconsistent and unpredictable team. That they will always remain.

Even during their most successful period - the 90s - they were the worst team in the world cup they won, they lost the final of the cup they were the beat team in, match fixing, ball tampering, drugs (wasim, waqar, aqib, mushy in the windies), were also controversies then, we got bowled out for the lowest score ever in history... and a whole lot more happened in that decade, yet we were also successful.

Ahsan said...


I think I wasn't clear enough because you haven't been the only person to misunderstand this. I'm not arguing that a good system doesn't help. I'm arguing that a bad system is not to blame for our decline in the last three years. It's a much more limited claim. I would LOVE for our cricket to be organized better, and I have no doubt that we would be a better team for it.


That's a great point. Even at our heights, we'd always have 2-3 guys in the team who were absolutely useless (Wasti in the earlier part of the decade, Imran Farhat under Inzi's good run). Yeah, completely agree.


I thought Alec Stewart was a really underrated bat. Only English player in the 90s who could play genuine pace. Certainly played us and the Windies a helluva lot better than any of his teammates.


A strong captain can go both ways. If a strong captain is good, like a benevolent dictator, then we're all better off for it. But if a strong captain is a dick, then we're in trouble, aren't we? For instance, I consider it one of Pakistan's great fortunes that Miandad never got a really extended run as captain, because although he was tactically very astute, he was (and is) a complete asshole, and as a man-manager, would have been terrible.

Q said...

I agree with that Ahsan but I believe Pakistan has been lucky with men like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, and Inzamam at the helm. They had the man-management skills.

Agree abt Miandad too.. Younis looks like he has them, but we need to see him for a longer time before we can conclude that abt him.

Let me say that when I say "strong captain" I mean all those qualities: technically sound, man-manager, someone who commands respect, can lead from the front.

Ahsan said...


It's interesting about Waz. His first couple of stints as captain (especially the first) were complete disasters. He had way too big a head, and was kind of a dick to the younger kids in the team. When he matured and grew up (mid/late 90s) he became an excellent captain (though he still wasn't a master tactician).

Q said...

Ur right abt that Ahsan..

In his first stint, Wasim was a kid himself.. i think he was 25.. in his effort to emulate Imran Khan he treated his colleagues (waqar, aqib, mushy, moin) and his seniors (rameez, malik, miandad) with no respect at all.. that was the problem he faced.. then the mutiny against him happened, which led to his and Waqar's long standing feud..

When he came back for his 2nd stint after Malik was removed, Wasim was a lot more mature ...

Although never a technician as you say, he had the ability to keep the players bonded and always led from the front..